Tuesday, May 25, 2010
We are finite beings.

This statement may be acknowledged by any given man to whom it is uttered, but is it truly imbibed by the hearer? Is its meaning held within his bosom, and does he nod his head in vigourous assent? Does his face cloud over, though frozen with Stoic fatalism, or does he fall to his knees crying out in agony? For some odd reason, such behaviour as described above is not considered strange in a dying man, yet it would be seen as bizarre in a man pondering the fact of death from afar.

Some, if they are of faith, may take this moment to console the pensive self-mourners with the assurance of life after death, since that
ought to be consoling. Yet, these well-meaning souls have not absorbed the statement properly. It was not, 'we are mortal beings,' but 'we are finite beings.' As Tolkien said concerning the necessity of man's death in his literary works, it was a gift from Eru, the creator, not a bane or curse that man should die. The idea was that humanity was not made for immortality, because man himself is a certain quantity. No matter how much butter one has, it can always be scraped too thinly over too much bread. Man, being finite, does not have the capacity for the infinite.

The remains of this essay will likely be of no interest to those who believe man's very existence is finite and terminates at death. Indeed, if that is the case, there is no more to discuss. For those who on the other hand believe in infinity, the problem still requires resolution.

I still remember that aching moment twenty-one years ago now. A five year old girl was sitting in the back of the car, staring at her second younger sister in the baby carriage, while the first younger one sat up front. As her mother turned into the driveway of their home, the child glanced out the righthand window towards the tall hills beyond the railroad tracks, themselves invisible due to the intervening meadows and woods. If she did not perspire, she had that same preliminary sensation of nervous cold that precedes the sweat resulting from stress.

'Mommy, I'm scared of Heaven.'
'What? Rachel, it only makes sense to be scared of Hell.'
'Heaven is scary, too, because it doesn't end.'
'If it ended, you wouldn't exist.'

And so began an brief interchange that did not leave the child satisfied. It's a shame that she asked these questions so soon. Rather than resting with childlike trust on the goodness of the same God that had created cedar trees, the colour purple, the smell of vanilla, and the cooing of a mourning dove, all of which she loved so much, her morose mind sought things beyond its strength.

'One cannot conceive a thought without language.' Being inarticulate (especially when one does not even know the word 'inarticulate') can cause a great deal of suffering. Teaching English in foreign countries, I have seen children tear up with frustration over my not understanding their native language, especially when it is spoken quickly and emotionally. Trying to convey philosophical problems for one's parents to resolve before even knowing that philosophy exists also causes a great deal inner tribulation.

It was at the age of nineteen, when my famished mind was devouring St. Augustine's
Confessions, that I found I had not been alone in my fears.

'Thank God! Someone else has been frightened of infinity,' I said after a seminar on the work.
'Oh yeah,' a fellow student said, 'I remember trying to tell someone once that I was scared of Heaven, and they thought I was crazy!'

So the Bishop of Hippo had shared the quandary. Two years later, the Angelic Doctor resolved the problem altogether with his definition of eternity:

Thus eternity is known from two sources: first, because what is eternal is interminable--that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole. (Summa Theologica: Prima Pars, Question X, Article i, emphasis mine)

How wonderful it is to breathe! To take air into one's lungs up to the count of four, hold that breath a moment, and breathe out as if one's manacles were falling from one's wrists, the scales from one's eyes. I was able to exhale such a breath when I saw that Heaven was not a horrifically tedious, infinite line, which would drag out my ragged soul, thinner and thinner, throughout eternity. It is not a perpetual succession of seconds, but one great second, even less than a second, it is one great 'now.'

To give an illustration to the visual learner: recall please that a line is that which has only length and no width. Is such a thing impossible in the physical world? Yes, but so are circles, triangles, and squares, and you can imagine those just fine. Now imagine a plane. In the diagram below, the line is lavender, and the plane green. The line is imperfect obviously, for if it were a true line, you could not see it at all.

Now, place a few lines within the plane.

There are three lines within this plane, and if you magnify it, you will see that there is plenty of green space in between the purple marks. Now since a true line has no width, it is impossible to place two side by side, and so it would be impossible to cover this plane with lines. Just so, if you tried to draw a circle by making equal lines from a certain point, you would probably never succeed in finishing it. The finer your pen, and hence the closer the pen would be to a true line, the less likely success would become. This is the problem of assuming what is two dimensional can be converted into the first dimension. The same absurdity arises when one tries to cram the eternal into the fourth dimension.

If Heaven were like a lush and verdant forest that had to be explored by one's moving through it, the expedition would likely end in madness. Our limited eyes would be forced to exploring one narrow line, one after the other, straining to catch everything of worth. We would never see the whole and certainly never come to an end. Yet, in Paradise, there is no time, only eternity. If one accepts that time is
the measurement of motion according to the before and after there can be no before and after in the Hereafter. Rather than view a park by examining one blade of grass after another, line by line, Heaven is everywhere immediately open to us as. One need but remain still and glance about, taking in its splendour.

Such a conclusion would not have been possible without Divine Revelation, and even then, it took centuries for the truth to be put in such clear words by the Church's 'Dumb Ox.' Yet, the problem remains that even if we are not asked to move along the plane of Heaven in wearing lines, can a one dimensional creatue glance from side to side? Can four dimensional creatures like use begin to understand an existence beyond time?

The problem of taxing out nature beyond its strength has been resolved, but a new problem has arisen. How can we rise above our very natures into a higher existence? If one grants the soul's immortality, how can this question be resolved?

It was certainly beyond the strength of the world's greatest minds standing alone, specifically, Plato and Buddha.

While Socrates consoled his disciples with his magnificent certainty of life after death in the Phaedo, Socrates himself (or as written by his disciple) apparently feared the immortality of the spirit. He may have projected that after death, beauties and glories of enlightenment awaited the soul, a return to the star where the spirit had her birth.

Yet, as one takes in the whole of the dialogues, one discovers with some disappointment that there is no 'happily ever after.' The soul again descends into this world, drinks of the River Lethe, and is reborn on Earth, having forgotten all previous lives. While an impious soul descends into lower, animal forms of life, the pious is again exalted after death, but then the circle spins yet again.

Buddha essentially had the same idea. Whereas Socrates yearned to look on the Form of Love after death, Buddha desired not to love at all, but to achieve a space without air or breath. This would be the realm where no fire could burn, because there was no breeze to feed or fan it. However,
Nirvana, like Plato's star, is not a final destination. After ascending the petals of the lotus flower, the spirit again tumbles down. Again it plummets into the muddy earth of the flesh. Round and round the wheel turns.

At first there is something very appealing about the theory of reincarnation. It soothes both our fear of death and of eternity. Being around ten years of age, I had come up with the theory that every once in a while in Heaven, one went to sleep for a time, and awoke having forgotten all that went before, thus refreshing existence anew. I see now that there is truly no difference between my little theory and that of the those just related.

Children cannot help being honest though. If their appetites do blind them occasionally, they remain brutally honest with themselves in solitude, for they have not yet mastered rationalizing. Even at ten I knew my theory was cheating. Just so with Plato and Siddhartha. They were two men reasonable enough to know that the soul was immaterial. They were broad enough in mind to propose that the immaterial can live without matter, and they were noble enough to believe that the best things awaited man beyond the grave. But there is a limit to man's greatness, even his greatness of mind.

The mightiest of spirits may scale the highest mountains, bracing their flesh against the cold, taking in stride the lack of air for the sake of breathing the purer, though rarer stuff, climbing higher and higher up the great peaks. They find themselves at ever more dizzying heights, taking in more thrilling views, and trekking up lonelier paths. Finally, as their nostrils bleed, the scarcity of air tires their lungs, and solitude becomes as stifling as a mob, they giddily scream that they have at last reached the top, shutting their eyes to the infinity of the mountain jutting into eternity. Down they giddily cartwheel back into the valley, taking shelter in the mundane, glad to have their mortal souls safe from the great, eternal Forms again.

Like Tolkien's hobbit hero, they say:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Yet, as Bilbo was nodding by the fire in Rivendell, did he perhaps glimpse amongst the tongues of flames, the great peak of the Lonely Mountain, urging him to start out again?

Creative Commons License
The Problem of Infinity: We Seem Not to Be Made for It by Rachel Rudd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at foolishnessntears.blogspot.com.


About Me

My Photo
Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
View my complete profile